June 23, 2024

Aadaptations are a safe bet in children’s theatre: turn a beloved picture book into a stage show and you’re guaranteed a head start in ticket sales. Hats off to Polka Theater (and Bristol Old Vic where this production originated) for instead seeking inspiration from a 2008 scientific article by Yale University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics. One of his co-authors, the Danish palaeontologist Jakob Vinther, even appears with a five-man band in this lively hour of gig theater for children aged four to 12.

Vinther’s research team found melanin in fossilized dinosaur feathers, leading to a landmark reconstruction of the color patterns in feathered dinosaurs. The show revisits that discovery, explained in a fun and accessible style for kids and, ahem, easily-amazed-by-science parents. That’s how 10-year-old Hilda and I are throwing around big cuddly “meatballs” and funny “sausages”, which respectively represent the shape of reddish and black melanosomes.

It helps that Hilda loves dinosaurs and fossils. Mary Anning is one of her heroes, so she’s immediately intrigued by the long-haired, laid-back Vinther, who styles himself a “dinosaur detective” and has some dino dance moves to share with the young crowd. He conceived the show with artists Dom Coyote (who directs), composer Lloyd Coleman, Victoria Oruwari, Harry Miller and Roxana Vilk, who sings and plays instruments. When Vinther is brought on stage, you feel the authority of scientific knowledge: an unusual feeling in theater that reminded me of the poignant 2071 at the Royal Court, conducted by Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science.

Jakob Vinther in The color of dinosaurs. Photo: Paul Blakemore

With writing by Malaika Kegode, this show has enough layers to work for the younger and older kids in the audience. Amy Pitt and Saskia Tomlinson’s design (with lighting by Chris Swain) is bold and engaging with neon dino silhouettes and projections appearing in disc-shaped windows. There are roars of delight at the chaos caused when Vilk – wearing an ingenious dinosaur costume – races around the auditorium in search of lunch; but there are also many reflective moments when the artists share personal stories about what makes them unique. The lasting impression is of each individual’s identity as well as their warm group dynamic – I haven’t felt such a sense of community in a family show for some time.

The real star is a Psittacosaurus who inspires a catchy syncopated song (the score borrows from funk, reggae, scat and pop influences) and makes a late appearance, much to Hilda’s delight. She says she doesn’t mind that there isn’t the usual kind of story to follow, enjoys the interactivity (although definitely not want to get on stage) and love the bright design. There is a wonderful sequence in which Oruwari, a soprano who has experienced synesthesia since losing her sight in childhood, attributes colors to voices of children in the audience.

“I didn’t know that about you,” goes one catchy song from the show. “But now I know, please tell me more.” It sums up a fascinating show: Hilda and I leave humming, with brains buzzing.

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